Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Tree of Life

This is a demanding film. Demanding is many ways. The narrative is on such a grand scale that when it periodically dips into the specific here and now and then jerks back into cosmic eternity it is not always easy to follow the thread. It also jumps to today every now and again! At 2 hours 19 minutes - it's also demanding in terms of endurance.

The film is pretty uniqe in that the 11 or so years of the recognisable here and now of 1950's Waco, Texas (why Waco?) are intersperesed with Hubble-esque shots of the birth of the cosmos and evolution of galaxies. added to these are sequences which would give The Living Planet a run for its money and which feature sperm searching for an egg, Hammer-Head Sharks, Dinosaurs, barren derserts, beautriful rock formations, flowing rivers and breaking surf. This film is a celebration of the created order and humanity's attempt to make meaning of it all.

The film opens with words from Job 38:4

"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding."

and then departs on a metaphysical exploration of how we make meaning from being family. Perhaps we can see this as an exploration of community stemming from the Trinity who are at the heart of the creation in the Christian worldview?

Right at the beginning viewers are told there is a binary choice: they can choose to live by nature or by grace. The couple at the heart of the story are named as Mr & Mrs O'Brien. Mr (Brad Pitt) exemplifies the 'nature' approach to life - self-made, supremely self-confident, devoutly religious and running a family with such authoritarian rigour that he becomes abusive. Mrs O'Brien (played by the soft and dreamy Jessica Chastain) represents 'grace' - generosity, self-giving, there for the other. The recipients of the nature and grace are their three sons Jack, Steve and RL. The story is told from the contemporary viewpoint of the now middle-aged and confused Jack who, in looking back on his childhood, is himself trying to make meaning from a past that cannot be changed as he approaches a future that is there for the taking - or giving. This for me was the central axis on which the story pivots.

Initially Jack sees the world and all it contains through the eyes of his gracious mother. Everything is wonderful and a gift. Life is there for the living and the world is a playground to be enjoyed with true gratefulness to its Creator. Life however opens Jack, his brothers and his family to the harshness of nature and thus sets up the struggle. As Jack is exposed to illness, drunkeness, criminality, devout piety, his father's idealised view of the American Dream, DDT, pubescent curiosity, brothers that need his nurture rather than bullying and a local gang who look to him for daring leadership, Jack realises he is confronted by a series of questions.Will the abused Jack follow the ways of his father, who does not even permit himself to be called 'Dad', or will he follow the grace and self-giving of his mother whose arms are always open for a loving embrace of reassurance?

The film's master-stroke is in its editing and cinematography - both exceptional. I did feel the film didn't know when to end and could have done with losing 20 minutes or so. The end does eventually come when the adult Jack goes through a door frame in the middle of a desert (doorways are a recurring motif for points of transition in the film) and then finds himself on a beach filled with people from his life as he reaches a place where his understanding can accommodate the forgiveness of his father and allow him to receive afresh the love of his mother. The visualisation of this does need some interpretation - and I could well have got it wrong here.

If you have some time to invest and are prepared to do a lot of work after watching this film, then do go and see it. If 90 minute Hollywood action movies are your thing - don't see this! If you like striking visuals and a soaring soundtrack - go and see it.

I'll give it 8/10.


Shawn said...

I really love this movie! Thanks for your thoughts.
The final scene, to me, recalls old hymns like "the sweet by and by" (We shall meet on that beautiful shore...) or "Shall we gather by the river..." Both songs deal with a final after-life reunion with loved ones beside a body of water.
BTW have you seen Malick's Thin Red Line? Another movie where the script constantly borders on the the poetic.

Duncan Strathie said...

Shawn - thanks for this. I hadn't thought about the hymn link - interesting imagery, maybe developing a theme of exile/homecoming?

I have Thin Red Line but like so many on the shelf it remains unwatched - for the time being.

Kaz said...

I enjoyed this movie and consider a far superior to the Thin Red Line, which I remember as referring to as 2 1/2 hours of life I'll never get back! I agree with most of the above synopsis of the movie but wonder if maybe there is more to the door motif than just transition. I only say this because as I walked away from the cinema last night the use of doors was what most of the conversations were based on. Although I think by the end of the night we had talked ourselves round and round in circles. :) Overall a very enjoyable film that I look forward to re-watching

Duncan Strathie said...

Kaz - thanks for the comment.

You are probably right and if I ever get enough energy together to rewatch it that's one of the motifs I'll be paying particular attention to.

I never claim to be comprehensive or original. I just call it as I see it after I've had a chance to reflect. The great thing about films is that they are open to as many interpretations as there are viewers!

Thanks for stopping by.

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